In a matter of months, or perhaps weeks, the United States and the government of Afghanistan could sign a security agreement that would dramatically extend what is already the longest war in US history. Leaked details reflect a plan that would keep around 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan through “2024 and beyond,” and they would still conduct combat operations against “terror” threats, which of course in Afghanistan, could be a very wide definition. In other words: indefinite war.
But a bipartisan group of senators launched a concerted effort on Thursday to slow the rush to further war. A resolution co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley and Joe Manchin and Republican Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul would demand a debate in Congress followed by a vote authorizing a US military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
“The decision about whether to extend the military mission in Afghanistan until 2024 is too important to be made without public debate,” Merkley said during a press conference in the Capitol. “Automatic renewal is fine for Netflix and gym memberships. But it isn’t the right approach when it comes to war.”
This same group tried to attach a similar amendment to the defense authorization bill at the end of last year, but majority leader Harry Reid didn’t allow a vote. The resolution did, however, quickly gain twelve co-sponsors from both parties. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives actually passed a very similar amendment to the defense authorization bill last summer with a stunningly bipartisan 305-121 vote, though it failed to make the final bill.
The senators present Thursday expressed genuine optimism the effort could succeed this time around. Manchin spoke with The Nation after the press event, and said the public sentiment in West Virginia was overwhelming. “We have a state that’s very proud of defending, and going anywhere we’re asked to go. It’s just enough. That’s exactly what I hear. It’s time to leave,” he said.
Indeed, a recent CNN poll showed opposition to the war is at 82 percent nationwide, making it arguably the least popular war in US history.
Manchin told The Nation that it was time for Congress to consider the views of the public on fighting a longer war. “If the people of the respected states of this great country speak to their representatives, I think all the representatives are going to find out this is one thing that unites us all,” Manchin said. “It’s something that doesn’t escape, it doesn’t leave you, and there’s no explanation. I can’t explain why we’ve been there twelve years.”
He cited frustration with a lack of clear goals in the country, and said the terror threat has long since been ameliorated in Afghanistan, and the new government was too difficult to work with. “We do not have an ally in Karzai. Anybody that believes we do, I’ve got oceanfront property in the mountains of West Virginia,” he said.
If this effort doesn’t work out, more aggressive measures could be taken—like modifying the 2001 authorization for use of military force. Manchin said they would “look at everything available” but were first focused on at least having a debate in Congress.
While the 2001 authorization legally allows Obama to continue the war on his own, the Senators present on Thursday feel that the spirit of congressional input would still be violated if the war was extended another decade.
“The president has said repeatedly, including very recently in his State of the Union address, that the military will conclude operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Therefore it only makes sense that any proposal to keep troops in Afghanistan past the end of the year would begin a new chapter in our relationship with Afghanistan,” Lee said. “The decision to sacrifice American blood and treasure in this conflict must not be made by the White House and Pentagon alone.”
“This is about rejecting military action on autopilot,” said Merkley.